Buzz words like sustainability, replicability, and capacity-building abound in the international development lexicon, so NGOs and donors at least know the right jargon. But we’re still exporting lots of expensive ideas like so many Hollywood movies. And like Hollywood movies, happy endings are investors’ requirement — usually in the form of a final funder report that trumpets success after success, even if the local reality is more Bergmanesque.
For some years, I worked internationally for Partners for Democratic Change, helping build mediation centers throughout the former Soviet bloc and the Balkans. Partners aimed to avoid common international development traps by building organizations that were 100% managed and staffed by locals, with the freedom the adapt their programs to fit on-the-ground need…while retaining the shared identity and values of the larger network. I’ll probably write more about the challenges and successes of the approach, but on balance, somehow it all worked. The 11 Centers I worked with are, 16 years later, surviving, thriving, growing, and building local peace. I was humbled and awed by how my colleagues overseas infused our North American ideas with unimagined creativity and resourcefulness.
About 7 years ago, I felt the need to contribute to my own community, and my work here in NYC is like international development in reverse — bringing it all back home. Much of what I’ve envisioned for the New York Peace Institute was directly influenced by my amazing local partners abroad. Some examples:
One party sessions: Working in Kosovo to establish the first post-war mediation center, it wasn’t easy to get two parties to the table — largely due to safety and infrastructure challenges. So, mediators often worked with individuals engaged in conflicts in what came to be known as one party sessions. During these, parties were able to express their issues, with mediators actively listening, providing conflict resolution skills, brainstorming on possible options for moving forward, and role-playing various scenarios. Clients found these to be extremely useful, and it’s since become a standard practice here at the Peace Institute.
Cooperative Community Advocacy: To my pleasant amazement, my Hungarian colleagues leapfrogged ahead of typical 2-party mediation and immediately started facilitating complex multi-party disputes around majority-minority issues — namely community-wide conflicts involving the disenfranchised Roma population. They built upon standard multi-party facilitation by including advocacy training, coalition building, and institutional development, and yielded incredible results that healed divided communities. We’ve dipped our beaks into a few such multi-party issues here, and continue to learn from our Hungarian friends’ examples.
Mobile mediators: I worked in a number of places in which it just wasn’t possible, practical or safe for clients to come to the mediation center. Mediators were regularly on the road, literally meeting clients where they were at. In NYC, we started doing this by working with local domestic violence shelters — mediating disputes between roommates, since many of the residents were not able to travel to our offices (e.g. the risk of running into one’s batterer on the subway). We now deploy mobile mediators on a regular basis.
Embedded mediators: It’s fun to create mediators out of whole cloth — and some of our best mediators come from the oddest professions. Working abroad, we learned to tap into existing structures dealing with conflict — social service agencies, churches, charitable organizations, etc. — and recruit individuals working in those contexts to become mediators. This helped ensure that mediation skills would take root in organizations, schools, local governments, and other venues. At the Institute, we love to train mediators who can commit to practicing their new craft within their own organizational contexts.
New approaches to learning: My colleagues abroad took interactive learning to a whole new level — incorporating the creativity they deployed as dissidents and changemakers in their countries. So I came back with an arsenal of fabulous activities, exercises and games. Plus, working in some places with unreliable electricity encouraged me to be creative with visual aids, so I began to use my drawings rather than powerpoint.
By the by, props to my stateside mediation colleagues around the country who’ve come up with similar ideas without traipsing around the former Soviet bloc.